BACKSTAGE at the BRIT Awards two decades ago, Beyoncé Knowles told me she couldn’t quite believe that “you people in England with your queen and your black cabs” even knew her name.
In the 18 years since then, that sweet, shy, church-going girl has become the biggest and fiercest female performer in the world – so famous and instantly identifiable, she doesn’t need a surname.
As a solo performer, she has released six No. 1 albums to sales of 118 million.
She has a staggering 28 Grammy awards and her spellbinding live performances at Glastonbury in 2011 and Coachella in 2018 – the subject of her movie Homecoming – have been described as “decade-defining”.
On Instagram, she has 198 million followers – almost three times the population of the UK.
And it’s not just us mere mortals who love her – countless singers, including Adele, Little Mix, and Ariana Grande all cite Beyoncé as their inspiration.
As a style icon, she has changed the shape of beauty by celebrating her curves, spawning a generation of fuller-figured stars, from Kim Kardashian to Nicki Minaj.
It’s no surprise her fans, AKA the “Beyhive”, worship at the altar of Beyoncé like it’s a religion.
Now, as she prepares to turn 40 on September 4, with a multimillion-dollar business empire, her star shines brighter than ever.
She also said she envied her sister Solange’s slim figure, and could never get her arms and legs as toned as she’d like, explaining: “I can’t help myself when it comes to food, and butter pecan ice cream is something I just have to have in my life.”
She confided, too, that on stage she became Sasha Fierce – sexy, strong, and in control – but off stage was a quiet daddy’s girl who did what she was told.
Having interviewed Beyoncé several times over the past 20 years, I know she has finally carved out the life she’s always wanted. She is a woman in control.
I never once imagined I’d have as much success as I have had
She calls the shots and isn’t afraid to use her platform to speak out on political and social issues. As close friend Michelle Obama, who calls her “My Girl”, says: “She raises the bar for all of us.”
But how much we will get to enjoy of her in her fabulous 40s remains to be seen, as in recent years Beyoncé has become increasingly private, only giving interviews to selected publications such as Vogue and, most recently, Harper’s Bazaar, and instead expressing herself entirely through the medium of music, movies and social media.
“It’s all about control,” she told me 10 years ago, just before she turned 30. “When I was younger, I thought I’d be over and done and retired by 30. I thought 30 was very old and very serious.
“Now I’m nearly there, I can’t believe how much more I want to do and I see 40, 50, 60 rolling out.
“I never imagined the awards, the movies… If I think about it all, I still can’t believe it. I’m honestly grateful for all of it and I don’t take it for granted. But my attitude is there is always room for growth. So keep growing.”
‘ALL ABOUT CONTROL’
For all her disbelief, Beyoncé was raised to be a superstar. She was just six when her vocal talents were spotted by her dance teacher at St Mary’s Montessori School in Houston.
Two years later she auditioned to be in girl group Girl’s Tyme, where she met Kelly Rowland.
He won them a deal with Columbia Records in 1997 as Destiny’s Child. Eventually, LaTavia and LeToya were replaced by Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin, the latter leaving after just a few months.
Matthew’s guidance helped to propel this new trio to become the biggest girl group in America.
Reflecting on that time, Beyoncé told Harper’s Bazaar: “My energy went into Destiny’s Child. If something wasn’t helping me reach my goal, I decided to invest no time in it.
I couldn’t let my family down after all the sacrifices they made for me and the girls
“I couldn’t let my family down after all the sacrifices they made for me and the girls.”
Beyoncé’s mum Tina, now 67, was the band’s stylist, creating the outfits, while Matthew took inspiration from his idol Tina Turner, combining high- energy dance with singing honed from the gospel church.
Tina remains one of Beyoncé’s greatest inspirations, and it’s thought she hopes to emulate her five-decade-long career.
She sent Tina a handwritten note for the icon’s 80th saying: “You have paved the way and made it possible for another country girl to go after her dreams.” In 2001, Matthew decided the girls should go their separate ways.
Her complicated relationship with her Svengali father – and his parallels with her own husband – are thought to be behind why this shy girl became such a powerful voice for feminism and equality in her 30s.
RAISED TO BE A SUPERSTAR
In 2011, Beyoncé announced her father was no longer her manager. That year, Matthew and Tina divorced after he had a child with actress Alexsandra Wright.
Two years later, he married model Gena Avery and neither Beyoncé nor her sister Solange, 35, attended the wedding.
At the time, she said nothing. I remember at an awards ceremony they all appeared together, everything seemed fine. Then the next day they announced the split. No one realised anything was going on. For so long,
Beyoncé put herself into this ‘professional robot mode’, but behind the smile for the cameras, her brain was clearly ticking. It took a few more years before she dropped that veneer and let everything explode into the open.”
There had also been rumours of infidelity in Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship for years, including reports in 2005 that the rapper had been hooking up with his protégé Rihanna.
When I was younger, I thought I’d be over and done and retired by 30. I thought 30 was very old and very serious
But in 2015, biographer J Randy Taraborrelli claimed in his Becoming Beyoncé book that these rumours were faked in order to drum up interest in the emerging Barbadian singer.
Once they tied the knot in 2008, Beyoncé and Jay-Z seemed rock solid until 2013, when he was linked to new Roc Nation artist Rita Ora (who denied anything was going on, saying: “Don’t disrespect Beyoncé.”).
In the same year, model/rapper Liv claimed Jay-Z came on to her and asked for her number. She refused him out of respect for Beyoncé.
Then in 2014, shocking footage emerged of Solange attacking Jay-Z in a lift – allegedly over cheating rumours. Bey maintained a dignified silence in the face of intense scrutiny – until, three years later, she tackled both her father’s affair and her husband’s alleged infidelity on her album Lemonade, singing: “He only want me when I’m not there. He better call Becky with the good hair.”
‘ESSENCE OF BEYONCE’
Beyoncé now lets the music do the talking, telling Harper’s Bazaar: “One day I decided I wanted to be like Sade and Prince.
“I wanted the focus to be on my music, because if my art isn’t strong enough or meaningful enough to keep people interested and inspired then I’m in the wrong business.
“I’ve fought to protect my sanity and my privacy because the quality of my life depended on it.” Beyoncé has taken the discipline initially foisted on her by her father and made it her own.
“It’s eye-watering to watch,” her friend told me. “But it’s the essence of Beyoncé. Push yourself, be your best, do not accept anything less than perfection.”
Who hasn’t seen memes telling girls to be the best, because: “You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé.” The star certainly tests her limits.
When she performed in 2006’s Oscar-winning Dreamgirls, she went on a liquid-only diet to lose 20lb in less than a month, and the star broke down in front of co-star Jennifer Hudson, worrying her acting just “wasn’t good enough”.
“I’m so quiet,” she said. “But I need to have this character who can scream and shout and be sexy. She came up with Sasha Fierce.
“I can call people out if they get things wrong, I can be mean, but then afterwards I can be Beyoncé and say sorry. It’s a perfect situation.”
Since 2016, Beyoncé has no longer needed to hide behind Sasha. “She’s evolved,” says her former record executive. “She’s an award-winning performer.
‘I’M SO QUIET’
“She has found out what she wants and she has found her voice, the girl who never said anything has found a voice to speak out about race, injustice and all sorts of political issues. She’s absolutely evolved.”
As she approaches 40, she is the mother she always dreamed of being, with friends saying she still plans to have more children.
Her relationship with Jay-Z is stronger than ever, thanks to her decision to work through their problems.
So what will her big birthday look like? Bey famously went all out for her husband’s 40th, with guests including P Diddy, Kate Hudson, Kanye West and Alicia Keys flown to a private resort in the Dominican Republic and treated to fireworks, synchronised swimmers, towers of lobster and world-famous DJs, who kept the party going till 5am.
For her own celebrations, sources claim she wants “a simple family day, maybe a boat trip, a cake, candles and definitely dancing”.
It seems unlikely, however, that Jay-Z will let his wife’s landmark birthday go without a huge, star-studded celebration. Plus, insiders say the birthday is particularly significant, because 40 contains her lucky number – four.
Even their first child Ivy, now nine, is thought to have been inspired by IV – the Roman numerals for four.
Beyoncé seems sure her 40s will be her luckiest decade yet. Not only is she releasing new music, she’s starting a hemp and bee farm after embracing CBD and honey to help with her aches from performing.
Speaking to Harper’s Bazaar ahead of her big day, she said: “My wish is for my 40s to be fun and full of freedom. I want to feel the same freedom I feel on stage every day of my life.
‘NEVER F**K WITH WHO I AM TODAY’
She’s certainly become one of the most powerful women in America. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have been recent guests of the couple.
And with plans for a new album, fashion lines with her Ivy Park brand and new movies, there is also talk of Beyoncé, who performed at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, having an even louder political voice.
When we last spoke, I asked what her best advice would be for women. She said: “This is very important and it has taken time for me to realise how important it is.
“When you learn to say no, learn to stand up, you take back control of your own life.
“I’ve spent years trying to better myself and improve whatever I’ve done that I’m at a point where I no longer need to compete with myself. I have no interest in searching backwards. The past is the past. Many aspects of that younger, less evolved Beyoncé could never f**k with the woman I am today.”